Zoe Terakes is an Australian actor best seen in Amazon Prime’s Nine Perfect Strangers, Foxtel’s Wentworth and ABC’s Janet King. But more than that, they are a prominent voice amidst a generation who seek to exist beyond expectation—of themselves, of others, and of the world. A strong advocate for trans, non-binary and other underrepresented communities in the arts, their work is both a reflection of their own journey and a reference point for others looking to emulate an unwavering sense of honesty in their practice. Following the creation of their short film, we discuss how this sense of honesty permeates a career fast on the rise.
Semi Permanent: After we shot this short film with yourself and Charlotte Mars, both of you reached out to speak really positively about the experience, and each other. Tell me what it was like for you?
Zoe Terakes: It was really beautiful. I think I had it in my head that it was going to be much more of an ‘ad’ than what it was and it just really didn't feel like that. It felt very intuitive and natural. Charlotte was amazing and the team was amazing and just constantly making sure I felt safe, and that we were all proud of what we were making. I just got to do my favourite things all day, like surfing and skating. Then the interview part of the day…I get asked very similar questions a lot of the time, but to be asked different questions and have them asked from another non-binary person was really nice.
The film is very much about your journey of self-discovery, which is incredibly personal. But you also mention the toll that being so open can take, particularly in a high stakes environment—is that something you are comfortable volunteering yourself to feel?
It changes day-by-day. Like, today (as in the past few months), I don’t really have the energy. I haven’t felt the need to have big massive conversations about my rights nor have I been up to debating it. But sometimes you’re like ‘no, I really have the most power to change peoples minds and make people listen.’ And other days, you don’t. And that’s OK! You’re also allowed to just exist in the world around you.
In the piece you spoke about the evolution of your identity, that it was ‘so slow you didn’t notice until it was undeniable’. Was there an inflection point that triggered that realisation?
I think I also said that it’s never finite, like ‘this is me now’. It’s always going to keep growing and changing in me. When I was in High School I really loved this movie called Pride. There is this leather-wearing, shaved-sides character who, when I was around 15, I said ‘Mum I want that haircut’ and she was like ‘no way’ because I was 15. Fair enough. Anyway, at the time it felt like a version of me that I was never going to look like. And then the other day I was like ‘hold on…I have that haircut now!’ Those are the tiny doors you don’t notice as you pass through. And that keeps happening.
It’s that thing where you have to remind yourself you are probably where you wanted to be 10 years ago.
Yes, because it’s so easy for it to go unnoticed. It’s so easy. I have a gratitude diary as well. I have to do it every day because some days I’ll be like ‘oh, I’m not where I want to be. This and that thing isn’t happening.’ Then I’ll be like ‘HOLD. ON. If you four years ago saw where you are now, they would never believe you.’
How intertwined is this with your practice as an actor? Does it absolutely inform how you work, or is the work informed outside of it?
It's interesting you ask that. It’s both. Everyone’s way of seeing the world informs their work so it definitely gives me a particular lens through which I look at the world. Then it also really liberates me in terms of roles. And this is something I didn't say in the video but I want to say now: It's important to remember that I'm a trans person that lives in a great deal of privilege because A) I am white and B) I'm a very palatable type of trans person. I can pass as a boy, as a girl, or as a non-binary person. It only opens me up to more roles, which is a privilege. A big one.
Of course there are many jobs I haven't got because of the way I am and the way I look, but there's also a lot of jobs I have got because of that, too. And they are jobs that not necessarily all trans people would be able to do. So that's a privilege. In terms of my my practice, the job I’m doing at the moment is a good example. There’s a level of truth that living this way demands of you. Maybe not ‘truth’ but a sense of not kidding yourself and accepting that some people are going to hate you, and then doing it anyway. That helps a lot.
Where do you think the industry needs to go to hold more space for people who aren’t as immediately palatable to the mainstream?
Unfortunately I think it’s a long way away. Even with the conversation around race, like how many dark skinned people of colour are on our screens right now? We are more readily willing to accept people who are different, but not too different, y’know? Like, “we” (as in cisgender white people) can still see ourselves in them. I know that through my privileges that people can still see themselves in me. They’ll look at me and go ‘oh yeah, I can relate to you somehow. You’re one of the good ones’. And I don’t want to be one of the good ones!
But in terms of that next step, it’s about casting trans people of colour, trans people who aren’t on hormones, trans people who you don’t expect when you think about trans people. Then it's about making stuff as well. It's about having more trans creatives who can shine a light on the community. The more those voices are amplified, the more space there is for community-led storytelling—not simply having a story and saying ‘we’ll just slot Zoe in here’.
Which is interesting because we have more storytelling platforms than ever who are desperate for a unique angle, but seem fearful of venturing too deep into counter-culture. But if you look at a show like Pose, they turned a subculture into a phenomenon. And there are so many others out there.
Euphoria, too. They were just casting people portraying people. It’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s out there.
On that note…Heaps Normal have been an interesting brand to work with, because they seem to have unlocked a shift in consciousness that is very much about and not about a lot of things. They made a virtually 0% alcohol beer and were first laughed out of a lot of pubs and shops. But once the first person put their hand up and said ‘actually I don’t want to drink as much’ everyone else did too. Now it’s a huge success. I think it’s, in some ways, quite symbolic of what we’re talking about today. So what I’m grappling with is this question of—did this mindset always exist within the mainstream, or is it just starting to proliferate now with a more conscious generation of people?
It's both. It's absolutely both because trans people have been around since literally the beginning of time and they were worshipped in a lot of cultures, too. The concept of gender fluidity or trans-ness isn't new by any means. What really shits me is when people are like ‘oh well now everyones non-binary’ and I’m like ‘no they’re not. If they can’t see it, they can’t be it’. So there's some really brave people who are out there doing it first. And then of course people are going to go ‘that's how I felt my whole life!’ It has a domino effect. And it's not that more people are becoming non-binary, it’s that they always were. That’s what happened to me—I didn’t know it was an option, then when I heard that term, I felt it. Like, ‘oh, there’s a word for this? And there are people living happily and healthily?’ But of course there's more of it because there's more safe spaces and there are more people in the public eye who are out, you know? And there's more mainstream stories around it. Not enough, but definitely more.
It reminds me of that graph of the rate of people who are left-handed, where once they stopped tying peoples left hands behind their backs, it went up by like 60% in a year.
Yeah! Absolutely, absolutely.
So this is a question I put to Jonathan Tan too. Let’s assume we live amidst a rapid shift of consciousness for emerging generations to grow into. What should ambition look like for young people now?
I used to be way too ambitious. When I was like 16, 17, I had really sharp elbows and was willing to push people away to get where I wanted to be. And I just couldn't find happiness for my friends, in terms of career stuff. I had a friend who is an actor who I really love and admire, and she said ‘I refuse to believe that we have to bring each other down in order to be successful’. And from that day on, I was like ‘yuck, yuck, yuck. I hate this for myself. It doesn’t feel good.’ And I don’t know what I actively did to change it, but one day I was just genuinely happy for my friends.
I think ambition is a great thing and it's not something that people should be shamed of. But there is ambition, and then there is blind ambition. And y’know, I think you always have to keep your ambition in your own lane because the second your ambition starts hurting other people or is at the expense of other people's success…I wouldn't call that ambition anymore. It's why Shakespeare wrote all his plays about ambition, because it's something that really drives us. So be ambitious for yourself only. Like, fuck not being able to be happy for your friends. That’s so sad. And it’s so sad when you can see somebody is unable to be happy for you, or for somebody in their life. I don’t ever want to live like that again.